Jackets Season opens with win, trade

Ohio Jones
12-16-2003, 08:20 AM
CD – Raleigh, NC

The Columbus Blue Jackets opened the 2003-04 regular season last night with a 3-1 victory over Carolina, and followed it up with a trade.

The Jackets, whose first four games (and 5 of the first 6) are on the road, made short work of the new-look Hurricanes in Raleigh to continue their strong play following a 4-3-1 pre-season. Newly acquired backup Milan Hnilicka got his first start since coming over from the Rangers with Mike York for David Aebischer, and Hnilicka didn’t disappoint, stopping 17 of 18 shots.

The real goaltending story, however, was at the other end of the ice where career minor-leaguer Wade Flaherty frustrated the Columbus shooters on 40 of 43 shots, including a whopping 21 shots in the first period alone, and pitched a shutout on the Jackets’ 8 man-advantage opportunities. This is without doubt a sign to come for Carolina fans: their goalie will have to stand on his head all season long in order to keep them in games. Chris Gratton, Geoff Sanderson and Shawn McEachern were the scorers for Columbus. Reid Simpson had a PJ Stock shot deflect in off his butt for the lone Canes tally.

The league’s best penalty killers in the pre-season (only beaten once - in the third period of the team’s final game against San Jose) continued their strong play, but you couldn’t exactly call the Carolina shooters a serious test. Indeed, on a night when Chicago scored 7 goals against Detroit and Minnesota blanked the Panthers 5-0, one might have expected the Jackets to have even more clearly dominated the Canes. But despite a smothering 43-18 shot differential, the Jackets continue to have trouble burying their chances.

Enter GM Doug Emerson.

In the post-game press conference, Emerson cited the team’s low shots-to-goals ratio and poor PP performance from the pre-season, then announcing that the Jackets had acquired All-Star center Jeremy Roenick from the Phoenix Coyotes for youngsters Marcus Nilson, Krys Kolanos, Mathieu Biron and Russian prospect Anton But. Along with Roenick, Columbus acquired prospect pivot Artem Kruikov.

Roenick will be expected to contribute at both ends of the ice, fitting in with the Jackets’ tight defensive scheme, but more importantly helping them put more pucks in the net. He comes saddled with an “albatross” contract, earning a cool $6 million this year and next, making him, as Emerson said in responding to the questions, “the single highest-paid player I’ve ever had in any organization”. Emerson went on to acknowledge that Roenick was also one of the most talented, but considering that his career list includes All-Stars such as Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Patrick Elias, Petr Sykora, Scott Niedermayer and Alex Mogilny, its definitely an illustration of just how much the game has changed financially over the past few years, and another signal that a Collective Bargaining Agreement needs to be sorted out between team owners and the HFNHLPA – the sooner, the better!

As much as money is the concern with this move, (well, that and trading four players in their early 20’s for a 32-year-old), it is also the primary justification. Emerson is facing ownership demands that the team turn a profit in this, his third year, following on the heels of a 2002-03 campaign that was disastrous financially, leaving the team (after Emerson’s limited Free Agent signings this summer) with virtually no cash reserves. Emerson made a number of moves over the year to improve the overall skill of the team without taking on salary, but he acknowledged: “after a certain point, you have to spend money to make money”.

With that in mind the Jackets will be looking to Roenick – and his offensive contributions – prompting increased attendance at Jackets home games this year. Of course, an improved win/loss record would help, too.

The Jackets also have a series of potentially lucrative sponsorship arrangements in place that are contingent on the team’s ability to meet key milestones around attendance, player performance and finish in the standings. So while Roenick may cost the team $6.5 million this year and next, the hope is that his addition, combined with the other moves Emerson has made to shore up his HFNHL roster for head coach Mike Babcock, will make the difference in allowing the team to reach these targets and turn their financial situation around.

Welcome to Columbus, Jeremy. Hope you like it hot…

Notes

* New Jacket Mike York played first-line right wing last night, earning an assist on Geoff Sanderson’s goal to open the scoring and adding two shots and a +1 (+2, -1) in 20 minutes of ice time.

* Speaking of ice time, the Jackets appear to be going for “defence by committee” to try and keep the older legs of Keith Carney, Patrice Brisebois and Sean O’Donnell fresh for the long season ahead. Captain Carney led the team with 22 minutes, Brisebois and O’Donnell had 20 minutes each, Phillippe Boucher 19 minutes and Aki Berg 18. Coach Babcock’s apparent philosophy of spreading the wealth around may prove all the more important now that 7th defenceman Biron has been moved to Phoenix. Red Deer Rebels alum Jim Vandermeer steps into the #7 slot, but may prove a bit raw for the HFNHL. The Jackets, who also dealt away depth defenceman Jamie Pushor to Tampa prior to the waiver draft, may now be on the lookout for some blueline help in the event of injuries.

* In their final game in a Columbus jersey, Kolanos and Nilson had a combined 2 shots in 19 minutes, but were held off the scoresheet.

* 4 former Jackets dressed for the Canes last night: Jason Bateman, Valeri Chebaturkin, Blake Robson and PJ Stock. Between them they played precisely 0 games for Columbus in the HFNHL, so they have to be happier in their new home.

* Kevin Weekes, who was among the league leaders throughout the pre-season before playing caddy to Hnilicka last night, will be back on the card tonight when the Jackets visit their inter-conference rivals in Buffalo. Roenick is expected to be in the lineup as well, although line assignments will have to be sorted out in this morning’s practice. Buffalo is playing without Jackets-killer (and former Jacket himself) Robert Reichel, who Sabres GM Josh Pitt moved in an inexplicably complicated series of trades, the result of which is frankly anyone’s guess at this point!

* The Jackets are off Wednesday and Thursday before playing 4 games in as many nights, including their home opener Saturday Night when they host the St. Louis Blues – early picks as Stanley Cup favourites even before they acquired gigantic defender Zdeno Chara.


Milo Minderbinder
Columbus Discoverer

SpinTheBlackCircle
12-16-2003, 08:43 AM
Wow....JR joins Columbus.

You guys have a shot at finishing ahead of us now. ;)

Ohio Jones
12-16-2003, 06:59 PM
Wow....JR joins Columbus.

You guys have a shot at finishing ahead of us now. ;)
That's right - I'll leave you in my dust with the St. Louis' and Los Angeles of the league! :p